Tell us your se­crets

The Compass - - EDITORIAL OPINION -

For many weeks, we at The Com­pass have been at­tempt­ing to gain bet­ter ac­cess to the af­fairs of the Town of Bay Roberts. In short, we have had mixed re­sults. To take it to the next level, we have de­cided to share some of our ex­pe­ri­ences and our con­cerns with our read­ers, and we’ll let you de­cide if the town is be­ing as trans­par­ent and forth­com­ing as it should be. Let’s keep in mind that coun­cil mem­bers are pub­licly elected, over­see an an­nual op­er­at­ing bud­get of $6.4 mil­lion of pub­lic funds, and as such are right­fully ac­count­able for their de­ci­sions to the pub­lic.

We reg­u­larly at­tend bi-weekly pub­lic meet­ings of the seven-mem­ber elected body, which is led by Mayor Glenn Lit­tle­john. With some ex­cep­tions, the pub­lic gallery is empty.

Tra­di­tion­ally, the me­dia rep­re­sen­ta­tive was handed a sin­gle sheet of pa­per with de­tails of the agenda for the meet­ing, and min­utes from the pre­vi­ous meet­ing. Coun­cil­lors, how­ever, re­ceive a thick pack­age of doc­u­ments, con­tain­ing ev­ery­thing from cor­re­spon­dence and com­mit­tee meet­ing min­utes to ac­counts payable and a list of mo­tions from priv­i­leged meet­ings that must be ap­proved in the pub­lic meet­ing.

Dis­cus­sion was of­ten very cryptic and am­bigu­ous, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to fol­low the pro­ceed­ings and de­ter­mine the sig­nif­i­cance of an is­sue.

Af­ter sev­eral re­quests, town of­fi­cials agreed to pro­vide a “pack­age” to the me­dia. This prac­tice be­gan in Jan­uary. It’s been a great help. Town of­fi­cials redact the names of pri­vate cit­i­zens or busi­ness own­ers who write the town, and we re­spect that.

But it’s not a com­plete pack­age. Ac­counts payable, or the list of pay­ments made by the town each month for the ser­vices and prod­ucts it pur­chases, has been with­held on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. Why?

We brought this is­sue to chief ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer Nigel Black and this was his re­sponse: “It is still a work in progress and our cheque reg­is­ter has had too much per­sonal in­for­ma­tion in­cluded in it to make it suit­able for full pub­lic re­lease. That be­ing said … we have been work­ing through our ac­count­ing pro­gram in or­der to try pro­vid­ing a more ap­pro­pri­ate level of in­for­ma­tion for agenda pur­poses. I hope that I will be able to in­clude it the next time it is pre­sented as an agenda item.”

Why does coun­cil feel it has to be san­i­tized? Many other towns don’t.

Priv­i­leged meet­ings

But our big­gest concern is the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of mo­tions from priv­i­leged meet­ings. Un­der the Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties Act, de­ci­sions made at a priv­i­leged meet­ing must by rat­i­fied at a pub­lic meet­ing. But these mo­tions — any­where from one or two to a half-dozen — are also omit­ted from the me­dia pack­age, and the mo­tions are num­bered. There is no pub­lic dis­clo­sure of the word­ing of the mo­tion, de­spite the fact the Act states they must be rat­i­fied in a pub­lic meet­ing.

We ac­cept the point that day-to-day per­son­nel mat­ters and sen­si­tive busi­ness deal­ings should be con­fi­den­tial. But it’s our be­lief that ev­ery­thing else should be avail­able for pub­lic con­sump­tion.

We bring this up be­cause there have been sev­eral ex­am­ples lately that we be­lieve should have been dis­cussed in the pub­lic cham­ber, but weren’t, leav­ing us to won­der how coun­cil­lors felt about an is­sue or why they voted the way they did.

The lat­est ex­am­ple came just days ago, when a town of­fi­cial made ref­er­ence to the “new” re­cre­ation di­rec­tor dur­ing a coun­cil meet­ing. Turns out coun­cil ap­proved a notable re­align­ment of staffing at the se­nior level, and sep­a­rated parks and re­cre­ation into its own depart­ment, with­out ever men­tion­ing it in pub­lic. Those in­volved are very high pro­file staff mem­bers, and we be­lieve coun­cil had a duty to ex­plain these changes in the cham­ber. In­stead, we stum­bled upon the is­sue.

We have also learned that in late 2010, coun­cil agreed to com­pen­sate a fish com­pany in the town for “ loss of busi­ness.” We in­quired about this ex­pen­di­ture of tax­pay­ers’ dol­lars, but re­ceived the fol­low­ing re­ply from the CAO: “In­for­ma­tion per­tain­ing to the mo­tion … is priv­i­leged — the mo­tion in this meet­ing was sim­ply to rat­ify a de­ci­sion made by coun­cil in the priv­i­leged meet­ing held on Nov. 9, 2010.” Ac­cess de­nied. Why did the town feel it nec­es­sary to com­pen­sate the com­pany? How did coun­cil­lors vote on the is­sue? How much money was spent?

Then there’s the town’s pro­posed new busi­ness park. In Oc­to­ber, coun­cil ap­proved the spend­ing of $171,000 for the pur­chase of 22 acres of Crown land. That mo­tion passed with­out any de­bate at the pub­lic meet­ing, or any men­tion of the price tag in the mo­tion. Ob­vi­ously, all the de­bate took place be­hind closed doors, and we’re left to won­der if pub­lic meet­ings are sym­bolic gath­er­ings where coun­cil will only de­bate the mer­its of com­post­ing or whether or not to make a do­na­tion to a cer­tain char­ity.

Me­dia has a role to play

Nigel Black says the town is try­ing to be as trans­par­ent as pos­si­ble, but there are lim­its.

“I be­lieve we have made strides to im­prove our level of trans­parency … and we will con­tinue to do our best in that re­gard,” he wrote in a re­cent e-mail. “ We gen­er­ally dis­cuss mat­ters per­tain­ing to land, legal and labour in priv­i­leged meet­ings. I’m sure you can ap­pre­ci­ate that mat­ters of this na­ture re­quire con­fi­den­tial dis­cus­sion and can­not be dis­closed pub­licly.”

We ex­pressed our con­cerns to a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at Me­mo­rial Univer­sity. Here, in part, was his re­sponse: “ The pub­lic places faith in its elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives to rep­re­sent their in­ter­ests and one of the roles of the fourth es­tate is to act as a me­di­a­tor be­tween the two. It is a dif­fi­cult but im­por­tant job.”

And it’s one we take se­ri­ously, de­spite the fact it some­times puts us at odds with pub­lic of­fi­cials who would rather we not stick our noses into the af­fairs of the towns or or­ga­ni­za­tions they rep­re­sent. But a lack of scrutiny and pub­lic over­sight is a dan­ger­ous thing, and we have many ex­am­ples to back that up.

Bay Roberts has ex­pe­ri­enced spec­tac­u­lar growth in re­cent years, and is quickly be­com­ing a mod­ern, pro­gres­sive mu­nic­i­pal­ity with record hous­ing starts and im­pres­sive growth in the busi­ness sec­tor. It’s for this rea­son that we cast a crit­i­cal eye on the town. Some big de­ci­sions are at hand, and it’s our job to in­form the pub­lic.

We re­spect the ef­forts and time and com­pas­sion that coun­cil mem­bers bring to their elected posts each day. It’s not al­ways an easy job, and some­times the de­ci­sions they make have a pro­found im­pact on fam­i­lies and busi­nesses.

We have great re­spect for Lit­tle­john’s lead­er­ship, and deputy mayor Philip Wood, a long­time ed­u­ca­tor in the re­gion, is a highly re­spected mem­ber of the com­mu­nity. Nigel Black has also proved his worth since tak­ing over as CAO a year ago, and it’s our view the town is in good hands.

But that doesn’t mean we’ll sit on the side­lines. We’ll keep prob­ing and ask­ing ques­tions. The pub­lic de­serves noth­ing less.

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